August 2007
All about Eba

Tracking the women’s journey

WE’VE COME a long way, baby — or have we?

[artwork by Randy Montecillo]

Consider: There is still no country in the world where women have the same range of choices that their male counterparts do, the same “capability to do and to be,” as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen puts it. Focusing on opportunities rather than capabilities, neither is there any country in the world where women share economic and political power equally with men.

The empirical bases for these statements can be found in the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Human Development Report. Since 1995, it has offered yearly indices of capability and empowerment for different countries. These are, respectively, the Gender-responsive Development Index (GDI), which is the country’s Human Development Index (HDI) adjusted to account for inequalities between women and men; and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which captures gender inequality in political participation and decision-making power (as measured by women’s share of parliamentary seats), in economic participation and decision-making (as measured by women’s share of positions as legislators, senior officials and managers, as well as their share of professional and technical positions), and in power over economic resources (as measured by the ratio of estimated female to male earned income).

In an ideal world, where there is no inequality between men and women, a country’s GDI and HDI would have the same value, and its GEM would be equal to one. In reality, no such situation occurs.

Worse, even after four international conferences on women (starting in 1975, in Mexico), and the screaming and flag-waving about gender inequality, gender-disaggregated country data are still relatively scarce, so that the GDI and the GEM for many countries cannot be computed. To illustrate: the HDI has now been estimated for 177 countries, but data non-availability reduces to 136 the number of countries for which GDI can be estimated; and to only 75 those with GEM.

What the available international data show, aside from fewer choices and less opportunities enjoyed by women vis a vis men universally, is that there are great disparities between countries. For example, the differences between HDI and GDI range from two points (e.g. the Philippines) to 25 points (Oman). And the differences in GEM between countries show an even wider range: from a high of 0.932 (Norway) to a low of 0.128 (Yemen) — which, roughly translated, means that Norwegian women enjoy about 93 percent of the political and economic power that Norwegian men enjoy, while Yemeni women exercise only 13 percent of the power that their menfolk do.

One cannot resist pointing out that the countries with higher GDIs and higher GEMS are also countries where the percentage of women who are enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary schools are at least as large as that of men, and where female youth and adult literacy rates are not only very high but are almost the same as that of the males.

Has the status of women worldwide improved over time? Unfortunately, because the GDI and GEM were estimated only beginning in 1995, we have only a 10-year period that we can empirically observe. Yet indeed, the indices have shown an upward trend, again with some countries improving faster than others. Still, evaluating the situation over a longer period of time — say in the last 50 years — would mean data that are difficult to obtain (except possibly for education and literacy). Anecdotal evidence will have to do — which is what we will (mostly) rely on in discussing the Philippine situation. But while the anecdotal evidence may be less accurate, they are more fun to gather.

LET’S TAKE a brief look at the capabilities and opportunities facing the Filipina at the beginning of the 21st century, first in comparison with her male counterparts in the country, and then in comparison with the situation of her counterparts in the rest of the world (2004 data UNDPHDR).

On average she will live a little over four years longer than the Filipino (72.8 vs. 68.6). She is slightly more literate than he is (adult literacy rate is 92.7 percent for females vs. 92.5 percent for males). She has more book learning — girls outnumber boys at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, with the gap growing wider as the level increases.

No occupation is closed to her, except (the only one I can think of) being a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. She can be a pilot, a machinist, a lawyer, a soldier, a doctor, a welder, a sailor, a construction worker, a racecar driver, a neurosurgeon. Filipinas make up 61 percent of all professional and technical workers, and 58 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers, but hold only 16 percent of the seats in Congress.

She can be a member of any organization she chooses. She can travel anywhere she wants. The idea of having a chaperone when going out with a male is totally alien to a Pinay. She can borrow from a bank or a financial institution. She is protected by law from any form of discrimination or sexual harassment — she can even charge her husband with marital rape if he forces himself on her.

At the same time, the Filipina is also more likely than a male to be “contributory” or unpaid family worker (56 percent vs. 44 percent) — those who work without pay in an economic enterprise operated by a related person living in the same household.

She also works longer hours than her male counterpart (21 percent more). But a lot of her services are unpaid, and her earned income is on the whole only 60 percent of what the male income is.

How do Filipinas compare with women in other countries? A ranking of countries according to their GDI and GEM respectively, shows the Philippines among the top half (66 out of 136) of the countries with available GDI data, and in the bottom half (45 out of 75) of the countries with available GEM data.

Being in the bottom half sounds bad, but a closer look will show that as far as gender empowerment goes, the Philippines, with a GEM value of 0.533 (i.e. women wield 53 percent of the power that men do), is actually doing very well. The explanation for the low ranking lies in the fact that most of the advanced countries (“high human development”) have the kind of gender disaggregated data needed to compute GEM, while less than one-third of the medium human development countries (including the Philippines), and only two of the low-human development countries can compute their GEMs. If one takes that into account, the Philippines has a higher GEM than seven of the 46 high human development countries, 22 out of the 27 medium human development countries, and one of the two low human development countries. We have a higher GEM than Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea (China and Indonesia don’t have enough data).

HOW DOES the current status of women — in terms of their capabilities and opportunities — compare with the situation 50 or so years ago? Unfortunately, available time series data on women’s capabilities and opportunities do not extend back that far, while researching Philippine census data was not an option for this piece (in any event, gender disaggregated data half a century ago were scarce).

And so, absent the empirical data that would have provided a solid baseline for the status of women five decades or so ago, I conducted an informal survey of a group of women who were either on the verge of adulthood or were already adults at the time.

I asked them two questions: (1) What do you think has changed between the time you were growing up and now, as far as women’s capabilities and opportunities are concerned? And (2) if you had your druthers, would you rather belong to this generation of women or stick to your own?

Before I discuss their answers, let me clarify that the term “survey” is used very loosely here. The respondents, whose ages range from 65 to 83, call themselves “The Walking Group,” live near each other, and enjoy walking, praying, or eating together. The questions were discussed over breakfast (with a telephone follow-up), and there was much sympathetic laughter as we reminisced, not only about our own experiences, but those of other friends and classmates.

As the conversation progressed, it was abundantly clear that in general, there was much less freedom, choices, and opportunities for women 50 years ago as compared to the present. But it was also abundantly clear that even then, there were tremendous disparities — restrictions on the women were greater or less depending on their family background, religion, and even age (the younger members of the group seemed to have had a relatively easier time of it, and I was one of them) — which meant that even then, the times, they were a-changing.

CAREER CHOICE was limited then, if at all allowed, for some of the women in the group. It was not unheard of that girls were sent to “finishing school” for a year or two right after high school, to learn the social graces and prepare them for what was considered then the ultimate achievement for women: marriage. College was considered by a lot of parents — fathers, mostly — to be useless for their daughters because their husbands would support them anyway.

If they did go to college, the University of the Philippines (UP) was usually forbidden to those from “convent schools” — because it was a godless, immoral place, and for some parents not even the presence of Father Delaney and the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) could make up for the perfidious influence of the godless, immoral faculty.

And while in college, the choice of a major was pretty narrow, since it was considered less a preparation for a career and more an opportunity to meet a future life partner. Menchu recounted that she really wanted to take up journalism, but she bowed to her father’s wish (really a command in those days) to take up music — a more ladylike profession, that would be of more use to her in her ultimate role as housewife and mother. Amelita recalled that her father did not want her to pursue graduate studies in the United States; women who go there, according to him, all ended up “desgraciadas (unwed mothers).” He refused to finance such foolishness, but stopped short of forbidding it, as (I think), his wife, who was an exceedingly active churchwoman, would have put her own foot down. Amelita had to seek financing on her own (she won a Fulbright).

Then there is Meding, who reminisced that when she was in medical school (at the University of Sto. Tomas), there were separate classes for the men and the women. She also observed that at least half of her classmates ended up not practicing medicine — their husbands of that day preferred that their wives stay at home. A working wife somehow reflected badly on her husband’s ability to support a family, and heaven forbid that his macho ego be bruised in such a way (never mind that his wife studied for years to hone her skills).

If women’s educational choices were restricted, so was their social life. Chaperones and curfews were de rigueur – Menchu was chaperoned all the way to the altar. Maybe that’s one of the reasons women were encouraged to marry early — chaperoning can be exhausting for all sides. With all that chaperoning, I often wondered how on earth an unmarried woman could get “in the family way” — but it happened, and when it did, it was a foregone conclusion that a wedding would take place, shotgun or no shotgun.

In any case, it was not uncommon for a girl to wed right after high school (or a year later, to give allowance for the finishing school). If one was still unmarried at 22, she was looked upon with a certain amount of pity and talked about with condescension — after all, she was practically well on the way to being an old maid.

There were any number of unwritten rules and procedures that had to be followed when one went a-courting – although by the time I got to college (UP, naturally), our Dean of Women Ursula Uichanco Clemente, in her Euthenics classes, had attempted to codify the rules of behavior: the proper time for visits (five p.m. — after merienda and before dinner); the proper length of visits (30 minutes, max one hour); the topics to discuss (nothing too personal — and the chaperone must be included in the conversation). There was also advice on the proper distance between man and woman while dancing (the length, not the width, of a book should separate them), and the conversation that would take place before, during, and after the dance. (I must say that although we never had the nerve to question her in class, we laughed at the poor lady behind her back.)

THE MEMBERS of the group whose education, career, and marriage choices were relatively unrestricted, seemed either to have come from non-Catholic families or had parents who had lived and studied, and even worked abroad (in the diplomatic service). If labels are to be used, they would be considered “liberal” as opposed to “conservative.”

In my case, both parents — my mother was not only college educated (UP) but was also a government pensionada sent to the States for further studies, and was one of the first professional social workers in the country — wanted the best for their children, with no gender stereotyping of career choices. A college degree was the minimum, as far as they were concerned. And since UP was the only university recognized internationally (for academic excellence), they encouraged all of us to study there.

If my parents did not interfere with education and career choices, neither did they interfere with our life-partner choices. And while they certainly would have wanted for their five girls to get married and have our own families, they also made sure that we were equipped to be able to support ourselves so we were not forced into any undesirable situations, or could get out of them. Frankly, I think they were ahead of their time, because while their attitude was the exception then, it is certainly the rule now.

Fast forward to the present. Most of the Walking Group have grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. And they marvel at the political, social, and educational freedom that their granddaughters enjoy. Mine is only six years old, but being with the UP for over 35 years as a teacher, I do see what is going on in the campus.

During my time, for example, holding hands in public was just not done between male and female students who liked each other — the girl’s reputation would be damaged. Now, holding hands is the mildest of the affectionate gestures between them. Back then, having a boyfriend was a serious thing; a girl who changed boyfriends was immediately considered “loose.” And this was in the UP, mind you. Today no one raises an eyebrow.

At the start of the semester, I sometimes ask my freshmen and sophomore students how they picture themselves 10 years into the future. At most one or two will see themselves as being married and with children. It seems almost a given that the females will actively pursue a career of their choice, even the one or two who see offspring within the next decade. Actually, the statistics verify this: with 19 million families and a labor force of 33 million, it does not take a genius to come to the conclusion that families with two breadwinners are now more the rule than the exception.

NO DOUBT that women’s opportunities and freedom of choice have improved considerably not only in the last 50 years, but since the days when it was thought that being a “Maria Clara” was the epitome of womanhood. Still and all, three final points provide a lot of food for thought.

The first point is that before the Spaniards came and thrust Maria Clara down the throats of our ancestors, there were no gender stereotypes and certainly no male domination in Philippine society — this according to historians and sociologists. Women and men worked side by side at home and in the fields, in religion and governance — they were considered equal partners. So if pre-Spanish Philippines is used as the point of reference it is clear that although we may have come a long way, our present situation is nowhere near as good as what it was before the friars came and spoiled it all.

The second point is that more than 200 years ago (at the end of the 18th century), when Great Britain and the United States conducted their first censuses, the labor of housewives in their homes was recognized, and they were considered economically active, partners with their husbands in the production of goods and services for home consumption. But by the end of the 19th century, housewives and their home labor were no longer recognized, and they were assigned the status of “dependents,” along with children and the aged, even if they were performing as many, if not more tasks as before.

This downgrading of the status of housewives (which is why, when asked what they do, they invariably say “I’m just a housewife”) is being perpetuated, unfortunately, by the United Nations, through its System of National Accounts. It is ironic that the economic contributions of those responsible for the production, care, and feeding of a country’s present and future labor force, are not acknowledged — so that when a paid nurse-housekeeper marries her employer, the Gross Domestic Product of the country goes down.

The third and final point has to do with the answer to the second question I asked my friends (did you think I forgot?): If you had your druthers, would you rather belong to this generation of women or stick to your own?

The answer was overwhelmingly, although not unanimously, stick-to-our-own. Why? Life was simpler — you knew where you stood. There was more order. The roles were delineated. The rules were clear. The world was a kinder place. A little more probing, and the real reasons surface: Coming a long way has a downside to it — while there are certainly more opportunities and choices open to women now, there is also more pressure on them to compete, to excel, to perform, not just among women but among men too. Who needs that kind of stress?

Who, indeed?

Solita C. Monsod is a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. A former economic planning minister, she has a regular column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is a public-affairs show host at GMA-7.